Stepping Outside Our Carefully Curated Circles–into Joy

Dear Friends,

On this foggy morning, I rose at an ungodly hour to catch a flight. The dense marine layer made the tram, which shuttled us between the terminal and the waiting jet, seem almost cozy, snug.  We’re generally an introverted bunch here in Seattle and as winter closes in grey and chilly, we retreat into our steamy coffee cups and Patagonia hoods. But on this tram so early in the morning, strangers chatted.  Eyes met, smiles transformed a dozen faces with cheer.

There are precious few places left where this kind of magic happens among people who do not choose each other. These days, we are masters at curating our own spaces, sticking to familiar places and people. We keep within the circles we prescribe for ourselves: like-minded, like-educated, socio-economically similar. We choose the messages we hear and we pay for the best experiences we can afford. I realize even the grocery stores I frequent are filled with people who at least approximate “my” people. But recently I’ve begun to wonder about the hidden costs of these “safe” choices.  Are we stunting our spirit’s growth in ways we don’t fully appreciate, missing opportunities for true connection of which we’re largely unaware?

Aboard the flight, the woman next to me in seat 32A is incredibly chatty, and a bit sporadic. She is not the person I would choose to sit with for a four hour flight. She has pulled out her phone and shown me photos of who-knows-what. And I’ve nodded politely, wanting to slip on my Air Pods. But as the plane rises and the millions-year-old miracle of Mount Rainier looms huge and snowy on the horizon; as flat-topped Mount Saint Helens, Mount Baker, and Mount Olympus drift into view, we murmur together with awe. Unexpected warmth crops up within me as I sit with this fellow human in witness of the majesty beyond the window. Honestly, what I feel is joy.

happy“Joy is good cheer. . .joy and curiosity are the same thing. Joy is always a surprise, and often a decision.  Joy is portable. Joy is a habit, and these days, it can be a radical act,” writes Anne Lamott in her book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.

It’s this radical act aspect of joy I’m interested in. Because in our highly curated world, stepping outside our patterns and circles is no easy task. Of course I can find quiet joy with my fellow book members who quote T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That’s almost a given. But can I stretch myself to find real connection in unexpected places? The jolt of joy, the surprise animation of an unlooked-for interaction, is perhaps more likely to open a new door to discovery, to pierce my patterned thinking, than when I’m interacting with those who think and sound like me. I’ve found this recently through a great conversation with an Uber driver, as I helped a mother and son load an impossibly heavy piece of furniture into their car, and today, with the woman in 32A. But the examples of this type of encounter are for me, I’m truly sad to admit, few and far between in the busy, rather contained life I lead. I wonder how many more of these opportunities I have missed?

As we become more polarized and suspicious of one another, my longing to encounter grows stronger. I don’t want to be satisfied with “my people” who are in “my corner.” I want something much wilder and uncontained. I want joy. Joy moves through porous places, erasing boundaries and protections. It is indeed at once a decision, a surprise, and increasingly, I hope, a habit.

Peace,

Kim

P.S.  For a song that strikes this same theme of finding the joy of human connection in unexpected places, check out this songby the Innocence Mission.

P.S.S.  We’d love it if you would post your comments here!  And for those of you who live close by, I wrote this post a few foggy mornings ago–I am indeed back in Washington and it is still foggy!

Consider: What We’ve Lost. . .or Not

Dear Friends,

In my twenties it was walruses.

“I’ll never become an expert on walruses.”  That was my wistful thought when I made the decision to move to Montana, fresh from college seminars on post structuralism, moral beauty, and environmental imagination. I had just spent six months in Tanzania, where I’d gained a passable ability to converse in Swahili, a taste for ugali, and a love for the bushbabies who clattered rocks off my metal roof each night. The world seemed excessively open and curious and I seemed full of agency.  I believed implicitly in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

I’d never cultivated particular interest in walruses, so giving them up as a possible life career caused me little more than the passing thought: here is a direction I won’t be going.

IMG_4680One door shut.

But all others seemed to gape open.

I’m nearly two decades beyond the time when I ruled out walruses once and for all.  And life looks incredibly different from forty as it did from twenty-two.  Less branching possibility, more prescribed probability.  Fewer trips to faraway continents, more trips to the grocery store.

Recently I read Amor Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility.  In the book’s final pages the narrator reviews her life.  As she thinks about her husband, her career and the life she built in New York, she reflects, “I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me.  And at the same time, I know that right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

I took a photo of that paragraph because I wanted to have it down just so.  Like Towles’ narrator, I love my life.  I feel the fit of each significant life choice and harbor no doubts about them.  I thrill when I walk out my door and think again for, perhaps, the thousandth time, “I can’t believe I get to live here.”  And, even so, I’m cognizant of the losses – all the walruses along the way – that indwell each gain.

I don’t mean this as lament; rather as stock-taking, as faithful render of life as I find it.  And there’s something compelling about all these losses.  They pile up not like so much inanimate dust, but like little flints that sometimes, when struck just right, still spark with latent energy.

As Towles’ narrator stands on the balcony thinking back on the right choices through which her right choices “crystallized loss,” she says, “I knew too well the nature of life’s distractions and enticements – how the piecemeal progress of our hopes and ambitions commands our undivided attention, reshaping the ethereal into the tangible, and commitments into compromises.”

The idea of piecemealing life has such an honest ring.  While I want my life to hum with the passion of worthy commitments, the groceries in the fridge persist in disappearing, my kids grow out of their soccer cleats, they clamor for homework help.  Bills arrive in the mailbox requiring payment. And that bathroom is not going to clean itself.  Life feels way too tangible and all too compromised.

But then, from somewhere deep inside something ineffable sparks and flares.  At times, these sparks seer and blister – things have gone by, doors are shut.  But sometimes these sparks seem to glimmer with a hint that all things treasured up in one’s heart are never gone, that all the branching profusion, though seemingly pruned years ago, is suddenly found miraculously intact.

in the snowIs it possible for both to be true?  Does the spirit obey its own physics – wherein things coming and going are all mixed up with one another, wherein losses are real and, at once, never truly lost?

Friend, whatever walruses you bear, bear them well and with love.  For we are all complex, expansive beings, and our hearts are immense and capable of holding much.

Peace,

Lindsay

P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction.  Thank you!

Self, Social Media, and What’s Real

Dear Friends,

This week, I suddenly became terribly sick of myself.  Let me explain—I’m not sick of the self who hikes, writes stories, reads with my kids.  I am sick of my facsimile-self, the one I trot out on social media platforms and in letters to editors and bookstore owners.  In the midst of promoting my first picture book, I am making myself literally nauseous.

This practice of being real with myself and others—I thought I had it figured out after the tumultuous, navel-gazing teen and early-twenties years.  And I’m thrilled that I’ll soon hold my first picture book.  But as a person who hates yammering on about her own work, the endless self-promotion required of writers these days makes my stomach churn.  It’s like gazing into a mirror too long, like snapping too many selfies (like the endless shots I find of my tween on my phone). In a culture where we’re trained to post carefully selective snapshots of our lives, I’ve been wrestling with this question:  How do I remain authentic in a society where, to get things done, to promote, you must adopt a certain measure of—well, if not deception, then slant?

In the Atlantic article “How to Hire Fake Friends and Family,” Roc Morin interviews Ishii Yuichi, the founder of “Family Romance,” a Japanese company that hires out actors to anyone who is willing to pay enough.  Say Thanksgiving rolls around and your prospective in-laws are looking forward to meeting your mother.  But she’s embarrassing: chews tobacco, swears audibly, shouts about politics.  Worry no longer!  Simply hire an actor who will play the perfect mom.  Yuichi has played the parts of loving fathers, acceptable husbands, perfect boyfriends.  His company has provided supportive colleagues, fall-guys, even healthy partners (complete with cheat-sheets of memories) to lonely people whose spouses are suffering dementia.

While Yuichi admits to occasionally feeling badly about long-term gigs (he’s been playing father to a girl who fully considers him her real father for years now), he defends his company by explaining that providing short-term comfort for people in an unjust world is legitimate.  As for being deceptive, he points out that culture is already on that bandwagon:  “I believe the term “real” is misguided. Take Facebook, for example. Is that real? Even if the people in the pictures haven’t been paid, everything is curated to such an extent that it hardly matters.”

But today, wearied from too much time on social media, I know that it does matter.  It matters deeply to me that I am known and know others in a real way.  As I walked down a sodden path in the park with my dog, I finally articulated exactly how I felt: lonely.

Of course though social media is new, the tension between appearance and authenticity has always been an issue.  Van Gogh spent much of his life wrestling between the poles of who he was (many dismissed him as a ne’er do well) and the pressure to appear successful.  In this letter to his brother, Theo, he vacillates between begging his brother to understand him and defending his authentic, searching self:  “What shall I say; our inward thoughts, do they ever show outwardly? There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a little bit of smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way.”

I love to think of the fact that many years later, I, with countless others, come to warm myself at Van Gogh’s soul as I read his letters.  In his words, often wrenching, often beautiful, I find a friend.

Sometimes our feelings of isolation go deep, beyond the reach of friends, and today at the park I felt that. So I told God: “I am lonely today.  Sit with me, please.”

And as I write to you today as honestly as I can, without tipping the camera to block out the pile of laundry on the floor or turning my face to show you my ‘best side’ or trying to convince you to buy something, I invite you.  Today, slow down; be present to yourself and to others.  Pursue genuine, authentic, communal soul-building.  Step up to the hearth, take a deep breath, and warm yourself.

Peace,

Kim

P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction!  Please leave a message–and thank you!

Consider: Reclaiming Our Attention

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, my husband and I took a walk through a beautiful fall afternoon. Our dog nosed at animal trails and loped through a stand of golden aspens. The afternoon, in all respects, was gorgeous, the sort of full-color fall afternoon you know will soon be memory. My husband looked up. “Do you know what the weather is going to be tomorrow?”aspens

I stopped in the middle of the trail and automatically reached toward my phone. Some part of my mind halted. “Don’t do it!” I said to myself. I pulled an empty hand back and picked a spear of grass instead, twirling it between my fingers. “No idea,” I answered my husband, “we can look when we get back.”    

Sustained attention, we all know, is under assault. I recently listened to an interview about “the arms race for human attention” with former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris. This interview was darkly illuminating about the persuasive psychology upon which internet content and smartphone applications are built. Far from neutral, the technology which frames our lives is engineered to maximize habit-formation and addiction. I feel moderately aware that my attention is being hijacked, and yet I still tune in to the ever-ready supply of constantly refreshed newsfeed, headlines, and emails.

We each have an inner garden to cultivate. Our hearts and minds, our brain space, our attention, are ours to tend. This work is our birthright. And everyday, I sell some portion of this birthright for meager return. Today I sold it for one trip to Facebook, nine or ten worthless checks on my email, and several swipes on national headlines.

I want my attention back. I want my inner garden to be rich with rare and exotic flowers cultivated over years of patience, effort, and considered attention. In this era where statistics show the average attention span has dropped below that of the common goldfish, I can’t assume that reclaiming my attention will come easily. Literally billions of dollars are arrayed against it.

Recently I came across this quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains… But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul…Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself.”

As I read this quote, something stirred inside. My modern mind feels abuzz with lists and worries, with reminders and to-dos. It couldn’t feel further from Aurelius’ trouble-free retreat. Yet it is within my power to retire into my own soul, to journey deep into that wilderness. Though billions of dollars clamor otherwise, each and every moment, the choice to make such a journey is mine.

Peace,

Lindsay

P.S.  What is your answer for leaving the constant buzz and “retiring into your soul?”  We really want to know!  Leave a comment here or (ironically) on EHH’s Facebook page, or send us a message.

Rest

For me, summer has always meant a plunge into sweet busyness. A steady, happy clamor accompanies every hour — kids yelling, the zip of the cooler as we pack yet another picnic, feet shuffling in sand, the splash of water at the end of the day as we rinse swimsuits and rack up another load of dishes after dinner.  

But this past weekend, we enjoyed a rare spate of days without guests. We hiked, worked in the yard, and watched the whole miniseries of “Emma.” And one blissful afternoon, I stole away to the hammock where I finished reading a book and then drifted off to sleep. The leaves of the cherry tree stirred in a slight breeze, the dog curled up on my legs, and the neighbors turned off their power tools. Just like that, I floated away from the everyday things — both the blessed and vexing — that nip at my heels. I entered a deep, profound rest. When I awoke an hour later, I felt refreshed down to my bones.

Lately I’ve been talking with others about taking a Sabbath — that is, setting aside a day, or at least a period of time, when I put down all work, open my hands in gratitude, and rest.

It sounds easy, right?  But it’s not.

Disciplining myself to take a day of rest — for me, time without screens or writing or busyness — makes me take a hard look at my own identity. Do I define myself by what I do? Or do I define myself by who I am — that is, a beloved, worthy human, divinely and beautifully fashioned, wholly complete? This is basic stuff, right? But it’s ongoing work, and for many of us, real, fulfilling rest is hard-won.

Taking real rest — being alone with our thoughts and in the space of quiet — opens doors to our hidden wounds and longings. It takes courage to carve out these spaces in our lives, for what the clamor of daily work and necessity obscures comes out of the shadows. While this can be a painful space, it is also the space our souls deeply yearn for. In this quiet we encounter not only what troubles us, but what feeds us deeply. These ritual pauses in our lives open a door to a sacred place where we can find healing and rest.  In the poem, “Sabbath,” Wendell Berry writes:

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

We must seek this pearl of great price — the rest which our souls beg for. As Wendell Berry illustrates, we must physically remove ourselves from our work and move to a fundamentally different space. In This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, Berry associates the tilled, orderly farm fields with work, while the woods symbolize rest:

To rest, go to the woods

Where what is made is made

Without your thought or work.

Sit down; begin the wait

For small trees to grow big,

Feeding on earth and light.

Their good result is song

The winds must bring, that trees

Must wait to sing, and sing

Longer than you can wait.

This summer, I hope you will be able to carve out time for real rest. Go to the woods, where what is made is made. Hush your thoughts. Listen to the world, to the voice that calls you by name. Receive your gifts. It is perhaps the kindest thing you will do for yourself all summer.

Here’s to cultivating wonder,

Kim